RI having trouble keeping up with charter school demand

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EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island currently has 32 charter schools across the state. However, if the ratio between applications and available spots is any indication, that’s not nearly enough to satisfy the demand.

According to Keith Oliviera, the executive director for the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, there were nearly 20,000 applications for about 1,800 seats during the most recent lottery this past spring. (The 20,000 applications were submitted by about 10,000 students since some apply to multiple charters.)

“That just gives you an idea of what the demand is and the ability to get into one of the schools is,” Oliviera said.

Rhode Island passed a law in 1995 allowing for the creation of charter schools – which are an alternative to traditional public schools but are still public and tuition-free. However, instead of an admissions process like you’d see in a private school, charter school students are selected through a lottery process which is held each year on March 1.

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It’s a process that can be emotional and nerve-wracking for parents.

“The day before school started we were on a waitlist and that’s when we were notified there was a spot for both of our children and we brought them in when they were in first grade and kindergarten so that was how we ended up at Kingston Hill,” said parent Michelle Snowden.

Kingston Hill in Saunderstown is one of 12 statewide charter schools in Rhode Island. Meaning no matter where a student lives in the state he or she can attend one of the 12 schools.

“People need to understand, number one this is not a test admittance,” said Snowden. “It’s not a matter of who ya know which is such a Rhode Island thing.”

Michelle Snowden’s three children attend Kingston Hill, which is in the process of expanding. Fortunately for families like hers, once a child gets in via the lottery drawing, any other siblings are able to skip that process and are automatically enrolled.

“All of a sudden you have the ability to go to a private-school-esque opportunity for no dollars. It’s funded by the state it doesn’t detract from public schools,” said Snowden.

Some opponents would argue that it does detract though since, in Rhode Island, education funding follows the students. So, for instance, if a child from Providence attends a charter school, funding for that child goes to the charter school, not the Providence Public School District.

Despite the critics, Oliveria sees room for charter school growth.

“That’s the challenging question. How much is enough so it’s not going to overly burden cities and towns and their local school districts? Where is that balance? I don’t know if I have the answer to that. But what I do know is we are not there yet,” said Olivera. “I know that there is room to grow our charter schools, particularly in our urban areas.”

In-Depth: RI communities fear costs as charter school demand rises

That’s a sentiment with which Wanda Brown agrees.

Brown lives in Providence and has put three of her nephews through Highlander Charter School. Now, she has four more adopted children she is trying to get in.

“The child that I need in there right now is number 11 on the list,” said Wanda Brown. “He didn’t get in so I’m just hoping other people don’t show up because it’s not over yet until school starts. Some people might move away so he gets an opportunity. I’m just holding on. Just holding on to hope right now.”

According to Olivera, there are many reasons parents are flocking to charter schools, including a student to teacher ratio of 15/16:1.

“The innovativeness of the programs are attractive to parents, along with the culture and climate of the schools,” said Olivera. “I hear stories of parents who are just heartbroken or who have been trying to get them in for multiple years.”

As for Wanda Brown, she is grateful her nephews had the chance to attend Highlander Charter School.

“They had an opportunity to be loved and nurtured and it felt like a parent, a cousin, and an aunt was raising you and teaching you. The big picture they care about the whole family,” she said.

According to Oliviera, five more charter schools have applied for licenses this past year. They will now go in front of a review board and he hopes they will be up and running within the next couple of years.

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